All week long, MTV News has been exploring the ins and outs of video game reviews — how they work and how they don't. But really, what's the point of a game review to a game creator? If a great review meant great sales, then a game called "Ico" would sell as well as "Grand Theft Auto," and the last 50 Cent game would have tanked. But that's not how it works.
Developers interviewed for this story said a review can mean a lot: a first dose of honesty, sometimes. Frustration, occasionally. Creative freedom. And money.
"It's the first true feedback we get," said Ted Price, president and CEO of Insomniac Games, the studio behind the "Ratchet & Clank" and "Resistance" series. "We don't look at them as a predictor of sales as much as we look at them as extremely helpful tools when it comes to game design." Price said his studio will sometimes even call reviewers with whom his team has good relationships and that their feedback makes future Insomniac games better.
Reviews may deliver designer notes, but they also deliver dollars. Denis Dyack, the long-tenured president of Silicon Knights, developer of upcoming Xbox 360 game "Too Human," said that a development studio's review scores, or Metacritic average, are one of the key things a publisher will look at before deciding whether to fund the creation of a game and green-light a particular studio's idea and involvement. "That's extremely important in getting a deal with a publisher," he said. "In the development world, you're only as good as your last game. ... There's two ways of determining if you were good: One is through sales, which is the most important one, and the other is through quality of title, which is generally, believe it or not, perceived as Metacritic."
A good Metacritic score can open up a world of opportunity for developers. "Knowing you got a certain Metacritic score allowed you to take bigger chances," said video game producer Pete Wanat, who has worked on "Scarface: The World Is Yours" and "The Chronicles of Riddick." "The difference between a 65 and an 85 [is that] with an 85 you have a much broader degree of freedom on your next game."
So here's the problem: Imagine a developer feels its game was reviewed unfairly — that it was docked points. All developers have stories about this. A colleague of Price's at Insomniac recalled a review of one of the studio's games that described a scenario — a battle with a certain gun in a certain mode — that was not possible in the game. Wanat still gets steamed over a review he is sure was written before the reviewer ever played his game. Some developers complain that small downloadable games and children's games are all, in their minds, marked unfairly low because hard-core game reviewers at major gaming outlets don't fully appreciate those types of games. (For more on how low scores have literally cost developers money, check out the Multiplayer blog.)
Dyack described reviews as being "about as good as polls for an election." He said they are typically written in a short time frame, with reviewers operating on deadline. He said the Metacritic averages that result are "more like a Gallup poll of how people are feeling that month rather than how they feel in the long-term about the quality of the game." (Read more about how game reviewers would solve these problems.)
There may be other ways to assess the quality of a studio. Dyack thinks "the best way to assess the value of a developer is to assess the people [who work in the studio] and how long they've been there, how long they've stayed together."
But by and large, the convenient metric of game review scores is something even Dyack, as well as Wanat, Price and other developers, say is a statistic worth considering. They say it shows the companies that fund the development of games whether a developer has been able to do something special. And if those numbers are low, at least there's a chance someone involved with the studio can argue that with more time — and a bigger budget — to make a game, that number could be higher.
And is it nice to know what people think? Does a review provide that welcome first dose of unbiased feedback that Price said his Insomniac team craves? Sometimes.
Wanat said he faces his own "constant dilemma" as to whether the way he reacts to a review — the way he learns from it or lashes out at it — is legit or, in his words, sour grapes. It's the difference between knowing "when it was not just, 'Pete's sensitive because he gave two years of his life to work on a game, and then when it came out, somebody didn't give it enough time to review it accurately,' and how much is it, 'Pete spent two years of his life, and he's really close to this. Anybody who says anything bad about his game, he gets upset about.' "
It's not easy making games, the developers all agreed. And, clearly, it's not easy getting one's work reviewed. Game reviewers, take note.
Check out the Multiplayer blog, updated daily, for even more gaming coverage.